While it is undoubtedly true that the industrial revolution provided great economic, commercial and social benefits to millions of people, some of that progress is now threatened by the unintended consequences of industrial activities. From plastics in our oceans, to toxic chemicals in our drinking water, to logging tropical rain forests, none are of greater consequence to our long term well-being than the burning of fossil fuels and related industrial activities that increase the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and oceans.
Although scientists have recorded a doubling of atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) since the mid-nineteenth century, and now have overwhelming evidence on its impact to the climate system, a causal connection between increased greenhouse gases and daily weather (e.g. rain, snow, temperature, humidity, etc.) is only just emerging. Recent studies demonstrate how a changing climate contributes to the variability and intensity of discrete weather events like droughts, rain, extended heat waves, warm winters, hot or cool summers and stronger storms. And though not scientifically definitive, the news is filled with stories of regular extreme weather across the globe; multi-year droughts that result in massive wildfires and crop failures, intensifying hurricanes, thunderstorms and rain events that cause epic flooding, and extreme fluctuations between cold (polar vortex) and warm temperatures in winter that play havoc with travel and work. Professor Michael Mann, Climate Scientist and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University says of recent extreme weather, “This is the face of climate change, we literally would not have seen these extremes in the absence of climate change.”
And the effects go well beyond simple inconvenience. In a recently published edition of The Guardian newspaper Dr. Daniel Swain of the UCLA Center for Climate Science and his colleagues described how a changing climate can impact weather patterns, and how these changes promote an increase in the intensity and scale of wildfires in California.
“While record-breaking heatwaves grab headlines, some of the most consequential warming in California is more subtle. Nights have warmed nearly three times as fast as days during fire season – lowering night-time humidity and supporting unprecedented nocturnal fire behavior. Declining spring snowpack and increased evaporation have reduced the moisture available to plants later in summer and autumn. The fire season itself is lengthening: not only have autumn and spring temperatures risen, but there are signs that California’s already short rainy season is becoming further compressed into the winter months. Despite this confluence of factors, the total number of fires in California has not increased in recent decades. Instead, climate change appears to be manifesting itself primarily through changes in the character (rather than frequency) of wildfire. Flames are spreading more rapidly and with greater intensity. Around half of the increase in area burned during western forest fires in recent decades can be attributed to the long-term warming trend.”
Of course none of this addresses the difficult issue of policy response, priority setting and the level of resources chosen to allocate to the problem. The questions of long term impact to our economy and to the natural world, and how we address the effects of climate change have yet to be fully answered. These are challenges that will confront our children as they move into adulthood and become the next generation of leaders and decision makers.
Because the Nature Museum’s teaching approach focuses on the natural world, environmental science and outdoor play, both climate and weather are important areas of learning and practical understanding for our students. But rather than giving them a specific policy perspective, our educators focus on the fundamental principles of science and nature, and how they apply to everyday life. For example, our Young Naturalist Director Kerrilee Hunter says to students and parents, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” This simple idea encapsulates a practical approach to understanding and solving problems, and fostering personal resiliency in our students. We know it will serve them well as they make their way in the world and tackle the inevitable challenges of adulthood, come rain or shine.
See you on the trail (and don’t forget your raincoat)!!!
By Tom Bregman